Today marks the start of Resolution's 'Good Divorce Week'. For the children of separated parents, the experience of their parents' divorce at any time can be emotionally challenging if not properly managed.
This year, especially during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has put significant pressure on family relationships, Resolution is focusing the conversation on how separated parents can embrace a child-focused approach to separation.
Emma Willing (Family Lawyer) and Fiona Mallin (Counsellor and Psychotherapist) consider some of the key issues and ways in which separated parents can work together co-operatively to minimise the impact of relationship breakdown on children.
How can parents best approach a situation of separation from the outset?
Emma: The breakdown of a relationship is typically a fraught and emotionally difficult time. For separated parents, establishing an effective line of communication can be particularly challenging. While separated parents may have attended couples counselling to explore a possible reconciliation, these sessions can also be a helpful opportunity to put things on the right footing from the outset. Such counselling can provide a forum for parents to discuss strategies for communicating with one another following separation, and put in place mechanisms to support children in a consistent way. It can be helpful if the therapist or counsellor has experience of both couples counselling and child therapy.
How should parents approach telling children about a separation?
Fiona: This is one of the most important conversations that parents will ever have with their children, so it’s worth taking plenty of time to agree on what will be said. This is a chance for parents to clearly explain what has happened between the couple, and what's going to happen for the family as a result. This conversation should be phrased in an age-appropriate way, and should avoid placing blame on either parent.
Children often remember these conversations for the rest of their lives, so it is very important to be calm and clear about everything that is said and to give the children time to ask any questions.
Timing is as important as location. If possible, children should be told together and by both parents, preferably at home where they feel safe and have access to their bedrooms if they need some time by themselves.
Parents should be clear about how much the children are loved by both parents and ensure that there is no doubt or uncertainty about new living arrangements. If one parent is to leave the family home, the children should be told exactly where they will living and how to contact them.
It is so important to be clear about new living arrangements so children can feel as secure as possible. Parental separation can be extremely painful for children, but things can be made a little easier for them if they feel their parents are working together to ensure that good relationships and contact with both parents will continue.
What options are available to resolve disputes?
Family member / mutual friend - A trusted family member or mutual friend may be able to assist parents in discussions. This can be particularly useful to diffuse a situation of conflict and involve someone neutral in the discussions.
Mediation - A mediator is a neutral facilitator, entirely independent from the parents and their respective solicitors (should the parents have them). While the mediator can facilitate and encourage discussions between separated parents, overall resolution can only be reached by agreement.
Round table meeting/discussions between solicitors - There can be discussions between the parents' respective solicitors either via correspondence or at a "round table meeting" (which doesn’t need to involve the parties sitting together) to resolve the issues.
Early Neutral Evaluation - A solicitor or barrister can be appointed jointly by the parents to provide an indication as to the issues in dispute. This indication can then assist the parties to negotiate an overall agreement.
Arbitration - An arbitrator can be jointly appointed by the parents to make a decision. The advantage of arbitration is that resolution can normally be reached far more quickly than through the Court process, and the arbitrator can impose a final outcome. However, unlike mediation which may result in an agreement, the parents may feel that they have less control over the eventual outcome.
Court - If agreement cannot be reached and parents do not want to use arbitration, an application can be made to Court. This should, however, be seen as a last resort.
How can separated parents best manage a relationship with an ex-partner going forward in the interests of their children?
Fiona: When parents are going through a separation it can be very hard for them to see beyond their current situation. I always ask parents to imagine their lives and the lives of their children in a year, in five years, ten years etc. Parents do not have to like each other to co-parent well. But it is hugely helpful if they can respect each other as parents and realise that their children really need them both. Once the initial pain of separation subsides it is often possible to find a way to work together to build a civilised and even friendly co-parenting relationship. These new relationships take time to build and they often require patience and forgiveness.
Parents often say that they would do anything for their children. One of the best things we can do for them is to model a way of life that demonstrates that we are willing to work together as adults in their best interests.
We can make a start by making good and reasonable arrangements, showing up on time, apologising when we get things wrong and being honest with each other to make life a happier place for our children.
Remember that your children are also now part of an extended family network. This network may be very important to them as they get older. A child can never have too much love, so we should be doing all we can to ensure that relationships continue and that children do not lose touch with their families or lose faith in love.
What tools can be put in place to avoid future disputes and to assist with co-parenting?
Emma: To avoid the possibility of future disagreement, any agreement reached between parents should be documented in a 'Parenting Plan' or, if Court proceedings have already been begun, a 'Consent Order' (an Order reached by agreement between the parents normally with the assistance of solicitors). That agreement should be as detailed as possible to include matters such as the arrangements for a child's time between parents during term time and holidays; how key decisions are to be reached; methods of communication; foreign travel and passport renewal; and how significant days such as birthdays are to be spent.
It is possible for parents to appoint a 'Parenting Co-ordinator' to assist them in their discussions and communications. Parenting Co-ordinators have a background in family law or as mental health professionals and are trained mediators. Parenting Co-ordinators are generally appointed once parents have reached an agreement in a Parenting Plan or a Court Order has been made to assist them in implementing that agreement and overcoming any ongoing difficulties.
Parents are now increasingly using technology as a tool to co-parent. Apps such as 'My Family Wizard' can be a helpful way for parents to communicate and overcome co-parenting challenges. Such apps are actively encouraged by Courts for use by separated parents.
Are there any recommended steps for parents to manage their own stress so that they are best placed to support their children?
Fiona: Parents going through separation can feel like their lives are collapsing and they rightly focus a lot of their energy on their children at this time. I always ask parents to find time to have their own needs met, as they cannot be fully available for their children if they themselves are physically and emotionally exhausted.
Parents sometimes disappear from their social circles during a divorce or separation as they want to avoid discussing the situation. I like to see both parties keeping up with friends and finding time to meet for coffee or a meal. It is important not to become so overwhelmed by the process of divorce and separation that you lose sight of yourself only to emerge at the end feeling like a shadow of your former self.
If children see their parents carrying on with life and managing reasonably well it makes it easier for them to do the same. Don’t fall into the trap of overloading your children with your own emotional pain, no matter how tempting it may feel at times. Talk about painful issues or negative emotions with a trusted friend or therapist and save your positive energy for the children. They will need a lot of support as they adjust to the new family situation.
Resolution have launched the Parenting Through Separation Guide, an invaluable and in-depth tool for separated parents – click here to view the guide.
For specific advice, please contact a member of Mischon de Reya’s Family department.
Fiona Mallin is an experienced Counsellor and Psychotherapist who works with clients to manage and overcome issues such as stress, anxiety, relationship problems, trauma and grief. Click here to visit her website.